Prologue: The Path

“Mom? Are we lost?”

Audrey stopped walking and looked at me, her aquamarine eyes fixed on mine; her brow pinched in worry, glistened with the rainforest’s heat and humidity. I was hoping that neither she nor her brother would notice the trail petering out, but now that we were pushing limbs out of our way to get through, her 9-year-old logic figured out what I was unwilling to admit.

The three of us—Audrey, Stuart, her 14-year-old brother, and I—were somewhere under the weeping canopy of Cuc Phuong National Park in northern Vietnam. Trees and bushes and low-hanging vines surrounded us in every direction. The birds that had been a non-stop soundtrack on our hike were now strangely silent. The only sound was the slow and heavy patter of rain against hollow bamboo and the crack of thunder heading our way.

This wasn’t what I imagined when I decided to we should visit the country’s largest park. The large shaded green area on our travel-worn map had caught my attention simply because it was close to our new home. Only a couple dozen miles from Thanh Hoa, where I was just starting as an English teacher at the university, it was close enough for a weekend excursion. I had never been to a national park before, stateside or abroad and this one seemed good enough to start with. I made reservations for a hotel in nearby Ninh Binh, then hired the hotel’s car and driver to take us from the town into the park.

Driving through the overgrown hills to the park entrance it was like we traveled back to the age of the dinosaurs. The verdant forest surrounded us with gigantic plants and no sign of human life except for the gravel road that wound upward, deeper and deeper into the jungle. Audrey and Stuart tossed witty remarks back and forth about catching sight of a triceratops poking from around the giant bamboos and wondered if the shrieks echoing through the trees were monkey or pterodactyls. Teaks dreadlocked with banyans seemed to be waiting for Tarzan to swing by, clinging to one of the hundreds of vines that hung from limbs too high to see This, I reasoned with foolish satisfaction, was something my kids could never experience if we’d stayed in Oregon.

A small parking lot with a dozen cars and travel agency vans assured us it 2007, not the Jurassic period, and that despite what it seemed on the drive up, we weren’t alone. Our driver parked and pointed out the trailhead, assuring us with his limited English and hand gestures that he would be waiting here when we finished the seven-kilometer loop through the thick jungle. Without a guide or even a map, the three of us waved goodbye to our driver and ventured into the shadowed park.

The overwhelming beauty of the place was comparable only to the smell that permeated the air. I pulled the collar of my gingham shirt across my nose to filter the pungent odor of unseen animals and decomposing forest floor. Neither kid seemed to notice.

We tromped along the uphill route through myriad unidentifiable greenery and past ant colonies, over bamboo bridges and under the feather-like branches of banana trees. It was an easy hike, paved almost the entire way with staircases built into the hill at the steepest parts. The park wasn’t packed with tourists, but there were enough to placate my concerns. There was that middle-aged French couple, complete with berets and cameras so professional I tucked my point-and-shoot into my pocket every time we passed each other. Then there was the Viet family, a half-dozen or more, from a baby in a sling to Grandma stooped from too many years in the rice field, plodding up the path with calloused soles, her toes gnarled by age.

There were others we passed as we walked the incongruous sidewalk, stopping to snap photos of spiders the size of my palm skittering past us or to listen for the call of birds we could neither see nor name. Back and forth, we scooted past each other with a polite bow of the head or a whispered “Xin loi,” excuse me, until we reached the Thousand-Year-Old Tree. The massive tree was the focal point for most visitors—its trunk measuring more than 45 feet around and rising to the height of a 12-story building. It was the tallest thing most locals would ever see.

Some visitors turned back to return down the trail from there, I noticed, but our driver had explained that the path would circle back around and we would come out just down the road from where he was parked. It seemed so simple when we started, a nice day-hike through the park.

But as we walked, the paved trail morphed into a gravel swath, narrowing twenty minutes later into a shoulder-width rut. The three of us stood looking at each other with the deep-green leaves of houseplants on steroids draped above our heads. I had no way to see where this sloppy rut was leading us, if, as my daughter was so willing to point out, it was taking us anywhere at all.

Baritone thunder tore through the overcast sky. I looked at Stuart, my eyes wide, unable to hide my panic. I hadn’t checked the weather forecast online before we left, expecting it would be a day like any other: hot and sun-drenched with an evening storm for dessert. The daily show-and-tell was a ritual for us now. Around 7 p.m. each evening, we would head out onto the porch to watch as the clouds rolled in, thunder growled and lightning threaded its way to the earth. It would start slow, but we would always seek cover before the show ended, frightened back into our family’s dorm room.

It wasn’t even noon. I hadn’t expected bad weather and naively assumed that we would always be near others who somehow knew the way. But we had seen noone on the trail, I realized, since we stopped to rest at the Thousand-Year-Old tree. I wasn’t even sure this was the trail, or the remnant of one, that would continue through and back out to our driver. What if the storm rolled right over us and my kids and I were on a dead-end path? There was no place to hide. There was no cover from the oncoming downpour or the bolts that would soon race across the sky.

This was a problem I hadn’t imagined as we trekked off on our merry way. I wasn’t prepared to get lost. I wasn’t prepared for any of this: the thunder and rain, the torrents of mosquitoes, the hunger, the feeling of complete isolation.

“Y’know what, doll?” I looked from the path we had followed to Audrey just as a mosquito dove into her bare cheek. I gently swatted it away. “I don’t think so.”
But I did think so, and it was my fault. I was the one with the craving to see Cuc Phuong. I had decided to take the job at Hong Duc University, far from the more Western-friendly capital of Hanoi. I was the one who had taken the kids out of school to volunteer in orphanages in Tam Ky. And I was the one who couldn’t let go of the dream of having Justin love me, willing to follow him halfway around the globe to prove my love for him.

And now my stubborn refusal to do what was safe and expected and sane had ended with us lost in a tropical rainforest, seven thousand miles from family and friends.

There was a sliver of a path ahead, albeit muddy and overgrown. I realized we hadn’t seen the French couple since they hurried past us at the tree, but they hadn’t circled back there like so many others. They had followed this dwindling trail–and that meant we could, too.

“Okay,” I gave the choice to the kids, “we can keep following this since I think those French people went this way, too.” I wiped the sweat from my lip.  “Or we can turn around and go back the way we came.”

More and more mosquitoes descended on us as we stood contemplating direction. Stuart, the only one dressed for their attacks with long-sleeved shirt, pants and his faithful Chucks, brushed the menacing insects from his face and off Audrey’s arms and back. My bare arms and legs, already dotted with scars from the months prior, were easy targets.

We swatted at the little blood-suckers and watched hopefully for anyone to come along on the trail for only a few minutes before Stuart handed me our community water bottle and started off again down the path. “Let’s go,” he said, looking back at me, smiling ever so slightly. “We haven’t been this way before.”
With Stuart in the lead, Audrey took middle and I followed behind, ready to catch her if the gloppy mess upended her. My sandals were covered in muck, my toes slipping on the slime. I considered following the old woman’s lead and walking barefoot until I remembered the stories of mud-loving leeches. Instead I clung to my flip-flops with clenched toes, flicking mud across the back hem of my skirt.

I looked at the clouds above us, now the color of wet cement, and wondered how I had managed to screw this up so badly. We were lost in a tropical jungle during what was quickly turning into a heavy rainstorm and not a single person knew where we were.

The sky brightened just as the thunder rumbled yet again. “Hold up!” I called to the kids over the rain. “One more picture of the three of us, just to prove we were here.”  We pushed our sodden heads close to fit us all in the frame, smiling with ersatz glee. Stuart held the camera as far as he could reach and clicked the shutter.

I shoved the camera into my pocket, shielding it from the rain and hoping the photos would help identify our bodies if we didn’t make it. “Please help me find the way out,” I prayed, to no god in particular.